Political, Economic, and Spatial Marginality in Chicago

From an interesting piece by Ben Austen in the NYT Magazine on official and unofficial efforts at land-banking and housing reclamation in distressed parts of Chicago:

What the housing crisis has revealed, in stark relief, is a Chicago that already looks increasingly like this vision of a ring city, with the moneyed elite residing within the glow of that jewel-like core and the largely ethnic poor and working-class relegated to the peripheries, the banlieues.

It’s remarkable how strong the hold of the old Park and Burgess concentric zone model is–the peripheralization of poverty is a phenomenon we can hardly even name, let alone address (except by Rahm Emanuel’s evident plan to strip anchoring institutions like schools out of neighborhoods already decimated by poverty and foreclosure).

Suburban Poverty

As Emily Alpert at the Los Angeles Times reports, Brookings has published more of their ongoing series on the suburbanization of poverty. The key finding of Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is that more of the nation’s poor now live in suburbs than in central cities. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, since the majority of Americans now live in suburbs. As the economy shifts toward casualization, underemployment, and deskilled work and away from unions, living wages, and sharing the benefits of productivity among ownership and workers, more Americans face economic hardship. It would be remarkable indeed if this poverty were not redistributed spatially.

Yet postwar iconography apparently obscures the presence of poverty in suburbia (while a separate but linked iconography establishes “the inner city” as the locus of poverty). Both of these symbolic systems verge on geographic determinism, obscuring the historical production of places of wealth and poverty in general and the more particular production of certain suburbs at certain historical moments and under certain political-economic conditions as affluent spaces. They also perform the ideological work of separating metropolitan places in the thinking of the public and makers of public policy. Yet, the phenomenon of suburban poverty would be very poorly understood in isolation from central city changes.

For one thing, all parts of a metropolitan area are linked by a market for real estate, which, as Carl Nightingale astutely observes in Segregation: A Global History, has been part of a triad of practices of segregation in the Anglo-American world, working with racist ideology and racial pseudoscience and the reform and police capacities of the state to extend and enforce segregation in urbanized areas. In the current market, real estate is moving the poor out of many central areas, as Alpert notes.

More poor people moved to the suburbs, pulled by more affordable homes or pushed by urban gentrification, the authors said. Some used the increased mobility of housing vouchers, which used to be restricted by area, to seek better schools and safer neighborhoods in suburbia. Still others, including immigrants, followed jobs as the booming suburbs demanded more workers, many for low-paying, service-sector jobs.

The Of course, these markets are also driving, as they have historically, differentiation among suburbs, a phenomenon that has also been obscured by the image of affluence:

“The myth of suburban prosperity has been a stubborn one,” said Christopher Niedt, who as academic director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University is familiar with the trend Brookings described. Even as suburban poverty emerged, “many poorer communities were so segregated from the wealthy in suburbs that many people were able to ignore it.”

The housing and job markets of a metropolitan area are linked by systems of mobility. Mobility is perversely both a requirement for participation in the active life of a society and an amenity with a price premium in the marketplace, which accounts for profound place-based inequalities. The infrastructure of mobility in cities, which includes the remnants of public transit systems, multiple surface streets, and sidewalks, combined with proximity, means that the market is redistributing mobility upward. People who are best able to afford the automobile-based transportation practices of suburban life can best afford to reject them, while poorer families are stretched further to afford cars as economic necessities. It’s part of our metropolitan political economy that the benefits of past public investment are being taken back from the poor for the benefit of the rich.

Hopefully attention to the suburbanization of poverty will result in some more critical reflection on the links between place and poverty. If a suburb that once housed the upwardly mobile middle class now houses the poor and precariously employed, place itself can’t be the only driver. Rather than thinking reflexively of categories of places as causes of poverty or affluence, it would be more productive for policymakers and the public to think about places in terms of the overlays of property, investment, employment, and mobility networks that affect the prospects of the people who live in them.

As it ever was?

In 1972 the American Civil Liberties Union represented a group of plaintiffs, many members of the Atlanta chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization, in a suit that demanded the adoption of a metropolitan school integration plan that would have functionally consolidated the school systems of the city of Atlanta and Fulton and surrounding counties. The US Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley, which overruled the Michigan Supreme Court and declared that suburban school districts could not be compelled to join in a similar metropolitan desegregation plan for Detroit, essentially rendered Armour v. Nix moot. You can and most definitely should read about Armour within the long and contentious context of school desegregation in Atlanta in Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s outstanding book The Courage to Dissent

I’d like to focus a bit on how the defendants in Armour invoked the differentiation of metropolitan space as a foundation of freedom and liberty. In a 1973 motion asking for dismissal, the defendant school systems invoked an understanding of federalism worthy of junior high social studies, in which

the far greater worth of strong city and county government really lies in keeping that ultimate reality of all political life, “the power to decide,” as close to the people as possible in as many areas affecting their daily lives as possible.

What the Armour plaintiffs pointed out was that one person’s or community’s power to decide to maintain a political division between their school district and neighboring ones severely impinged on others’ power to realize integrated and quality education for their children. This observation was glaringly obvious, even in a cultural context where local control carried the ideological weight for segregation. The defendants were compelled to admit that 

In education, as elsewhere, of course, the price (if it can be called a price) of keeping government close to the people is lack of uniformity. When the power to decide is in the hands of the many rather than the few, it is to be expected that decisions will differ….

Needless to say, county to county and city to city diversities of this sort permeate local governmental activities generally. The differences are accepted as an inherent consequence of the very existence of local government (the power to decide obviously being inclusive of the power to differ). Nor have these diversities ever been thought of as posing problems under the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This blithe dismissal of the consequences of political fragmentation as the outcome of decisions the residents of different localities made represents an opportunistic application of public choice theory to rationalize deep spatial inequalities (a subject I’ve addressed here), but it also signals a particular historical turning point for American racism toward the strategic embrace of color-blindness. Just as public choice as a theory evolved in dialogue with changing spatial practices in suburbanizing America, the invocation of individual choice to explain away glaring racial inequities was an ideological maneuver rooted in the metropolitanization of America and the adaptation of white supremacy to a new spatial form and a mode of expression characterized by privilege more than oppression.

Indeed, one of the most effective rhetorical maneuvers of color-blind racism–placing the burden of proof on claimants of racism–was in full effect in the defendants’ motion:

The fact that there is a concentration of black citizens in Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and virtually all other major urban centers of the United States is generally known. Yet there seems to be little if any agreement as to the reasons for this demographic pattern. We think it unlikely that any precise, all-inclusive answer, will ever be arrived at to replace the present speculation.

Since there was absolutely no way to ever reach the conclusion that racism accounted for this admittedly severe deviation from random population distribution, then courts supporting metropolitan desegregation would be engaging with social engineering that, for dubious benefits, risked not the particular prerogatives of the region’s white suburbanites but liberty itself:

plaintiffs would deprive the State and its citizens of a long established political liberty (i.e. the right to establish and maintain autonomous city and county governments for the control of public education, police power, and the numerous other functions and services in which local governments have traditionally been engaged)….

One of the difficulties I have as a historian with much of the sociological literature on color-blind racism is that, for all its sophistication in identifying rhetorical constructions and their usefulness in particular social contexts, that literature tends to assume a sweeping change in the dominant ideological expression of white supremacy without exploring how that change took place–i.e., after the Civil Rights movement, it was no longer socially acceptable to invoke biological racial difference as a justification for white supremacy, necessitating subtler ideological constructs. But if ideologies are in one sense interpretive frames through which one makes sense of the world, they are also strategies for getting what one wants. Ideologies don’t work in the abstract; they can reproduce and spread only to the extent that they work in repeated iterations of similar circumstances. In this case, what the defendant school systems in the counties around Atlanta and their nearly all-white constituencies wanted was to avoid integration, and they could get it by invoking local control, exercised through their county school systems, as a pillar of Americanism while simultaneously playing dumb about why the metro area’s black residents overwhelmingly lived in Atlanta.

One of the things that Armour helps us to understand, then, is that shifts to color-blind expressions of white racism quite literally took place–that is, they took the kinds of places, and the kinds of material and social privileges and interests organized by place, that suburbanization created across the nation after World War II.